Is Britain losing its appetite for casual dining?
The collapse of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants empire is merely the latest and most high-profile continuation of a trend that was established in the eating-out sector two years ago.
Jamie’s Italian and Barbecoa now join a roll-call that, during 2019, has seen Boparan Restaurant Group announce plans to close around a third of its Ed’s Easy Diner and Giraffe outlets and Patisserie Valerie close more than 70 outlets since unearthing accounting problems late last year.
The Restaurant Group, one of the biggest quoted companies in the sector, is also in the process of closing some of its more poorly-performing Frankie & Benny’s and Chiquito outlets or converting them to branches of Wagamama, which it recently acquired .
To this list can be added some of the big-name casualties of 2018, which saw the likes of Carluccio’s, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron, Handmade Burger Co, Strada and Prezzo all closing sites.
Indeed, the attrition rate appears to be accelerating, with the advisory firms CGA and Alix Partners yesterday publishing a report suggesting that 750 outlets have closed during the year to the end of March.
The problem has a number of causes.
The short-term difficulty is that restaurants are buckling from the same pressures afflicting high street retailers, such as higher rents, crushing business rates – especially in London – and rising costs, due to food price inflation as a result of the weaker pound and higher wage bills, reflecting increases in the National Living Wage.
None of these, though, are especially new factors and have been in place for more than a year .
Perhaps the bigger surprise is that they continue to afflict the sector.
That suggests the restaurant closures seen during the last two years have not gone far enough in mitigating the main headwind facing the industry – namely that the UK has too many restaurants competing for too few customers.
The over-supply stems in part from the fact that private equity firms, with plenty of funds to deploy, have poured money into the casual dining sector in recent years and been quick to encourage the rapid roll-out of formats that had appeared successful in one or two outlets.
Quite often, these formats had enjoyed initial success in London, but that did not guarantee success in other towns and cities across the country and particularly where the format was hurriedly replicated.
A good example here is Byron, the private equity-backed burger chain, although it has at least survived after closing 21 restaurants last year and receiving a £10m cash injection from investors in February this year.
Another example of a format that did not enjoy universal success once rolled-out nationwide, having enjoyed initial success in the capital, was the upmarket pizza chain Franco Manca.
Particular segments of the market that are over-crowded include the mid-market casual sector, where – when the downturn kicked in at the end of 2017 – the likes of Bella Pizza, Zizzi, Ask Italian, Café Rouge, Carluccio’s and Wagamama had all been duking it out from more than 100 sites apiece and PizzaExpress and Prezzo were each trading from more than 200 sites.
This was also the segment of the market in which Jamie’s Italian sat.
The over-saturation was not just in individual segments of the market, though, but has also been geographic.
It appears to have been particularly pronounced in the south of England.
The Alix Partners and CGA report suggests that 2.8% of all restaurants in the south have closed during the last 12 months, compared with 1.3% in London and a closure rate of just 0.4% in the north of England.
That may not necessarily be due to over-saturation of restaurants.
It may also point to the fact that consumers outside London and the south-east, spared the onerous cost of housing in those parts of the country, have more money to spend on eating out.
Other factors that may be at play include a failure on the part of restaurant operators to respond to changing tastes in particular among millennials, the younger consumers who eat out most frequently, who in general place a greater emphasis on provenance and who are more likely to look for healthier options on restaurant menus such as low calorie, vegetarian, vegan and allergen-aware dishes.
Any big restaurant chain that fails to address these consumer demands immediately starts at a disadvantage.
Many of the bigger chains – Carluccio’s is often cited by industry insiders as an example – were slow to update or refresh their menus and came a cropper as a result.
Changing tastes also appear to have contributed to the failure of an increasing number of Britain’s curry houses which, according to the Asian Catering Federation, have been closing at the rate of two a week, although other factors have also been at play here, including stricter immigration rules on accepting chefs from Asia.
Moreover, some restaurant operators appeared to be putting quantity over quality.
Jamie’s Italian, which purported to be offering a premium product, was accused of this after it emerged – following a Food Standards Agency investigation – that it was using the same meat supplier, Russell Hume, as the considerably less expensive JD Wetherspoon pub chain.
It is not the case that the entire casual dining sector is drowning in over-capacity.
The number of pubs has collapsed in the face of an onslaught of cheap supermarket booze and after the introduction of smoking bans in Scotland in March 2006 and in England and Wales in July 2007.
Yet those pubs that have remained in business have raised their game considerably and, in particular, in the quality of their food offerings.
There seems little doubt that Britain’s pubs are now winning market share at the expense of some restaurant operators.
So, too, are those businesses with a clear value proposition.
Among those trading particularly strongly at present include the Greggs bakery chain, the Subway sandwich chain, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.
The bigger worry for the entire sector must be that the whole casual dining phenomenon, an established part of British social life for the last 25-30 years, is weakening.
The rapid rise of home delivery services like Deliveroo and Uber Eats, or apps like Just Eat that facilitate home delivery, represent a huge threat to the sector because, in the case of Deliveroo or Uber Eats, a restaurateur is effectively contracting out, to a third party, the valuable and vital relationship that they have with their customers.
A customer who has a poor experience in a restaurant can be placated by an owner or manager knocking a few items off the bill; a customer who has a bad experience that they have ordered via Deliveroo or Uber Eats may just opt for buying dishes from another restaurant via the service in future.
The vast sums being piled into this sector, particularly since Amazon participated in Deliveroo’s latest $575m funding round, mean that competitive pressure is only going to grow.